SI Vault
Chris Mead
September 23, 1985
By World War II, Joe Louis was a hero for all Americans, but financial troubles, illness and changing racial attitudes dimmed his image
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September 23, 1985

Triumphs And Trials

By World War II, Joe Louis was a hero for all Americans, but financial troubles, illness and changing racial attitudes dimmed his image

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Louis's victory was so sudden and so complete that for most sportswriters it erased all doubt about his greatness as a boxer. Nevertheless, much of their writing was vintage racist. Lewis F. Atchison of The Washington Post began his story: "Joe Louis, the lethargic, chicken-eating young colored boy, reverted to his dreaded role of the 'brown bomber' tonight." Henry McLemore of the United Press called Louis "a jungle man, completely primitive as any savage, out to destroy the thing he hates."

The German newspapers all downplayed Schmeling's loss. Der Angriff, the official Nazi paper, said, "It is bitter, but it is not a national disaster." Many U.S. papers saw Louis's win as a mighty triumph both for America and for American blacks, but The New York Times was not among them: "It doesn't mean that the Negro race is or is not rising in the economic scale, or anything else.... Tomorrow will be exactly what it would otherwise have been. Nothing has happened."

But something really had happened. For many Americans, Louis had shattered the myth of white supremacy by beating Schmeling. More important, he had won wide acceptance as America's national surrogate, something no black had ever come close to doing before.

Mike Jacobs had a virtual monopoly over big-time boxing now. He had even become the promoter for Madison Square Garden, the nation's most powerful boxing operation.

Louis took a six-month vacation after Schmeling, then on Jan. 25, 1939 he fought John Henry Lewis, a black fighter with a bad eye who had held the light heavyweight championship for 3½ years. Never before had black men met for the heavyweight title. Jacobs kept ticket prices low, fearing a lack of demand from white customers, but the Garden was sold out. The champion knocked Lewis down three times in the first round, and the referee promptly stopped the fight.

Next he fought a saloonkeeper and veteran fighter named Dominick Anthony Galento. Better known as Two-Ton Tony, Galento was both fat and strong—5'9", 225 pounds—and he announced, "I'll moida da bum."

A so-so crowd of 40,000 came to Yankee Stadium on June 28, 1939. In the third round, Two-Ton Tony surprised Louis with a powerful left hook and put him down on his rear end. That was it for the fat bartender. In Round 4 Louis chopped him to pieces, and the referee was forced to stop the fight.

After Galento, Louis went on to fight a series of even lesser has-beens and nobodies. Jack Miley of the New York Post referred to the schedule as the "Bum-of-the-Month Club." The phrase caught on, but it wasn't quite fair. As Louis said in his 1978 autobiography Joe Louis: My Life, "Those guys I fought were not bums. They were hardworking professionals trying to make a dollar, too. I knew the training they went through, and I knew the dreams they had. No different from me."

By May 1941 Louis had fought six times in six months, and he was tired. But Jacobs had arranged for a fight in June against Billy Conn, Louis's best opponent since Schmeling. Conn was great box office—a handsome Irishman with just the right mix of cockiness and youth. Jacobs himself confessed that he would not mind if Conn beat Louis, since that might inject new excitement into the increasingly stale heavyweight division. Conn nearly did exactly that.

He piled up a big lead in points, then staggered Louis in the 12th round. But the overconfident Conn tried to KO Louis, and the desperate champion rallied to knock out the Irishman with two seconds left in the 13th. It was perhaps the most exciting heavyweight fight ever fought, and it instantly revived interest in the division. The match had drawn $451,743 in gate receipts, and a rematch would certainly draw much more. But before he gave Conn another title shot, Jacobs signed Lou Nova—a Californian who studied yoga and claimed to have a "cosmic punch"—for a Sept. 29, 1941 fight in the Polo Grounds. Some 56,000 fans watched Louis spar cautiously for five rounds, then demolish the decidedly noncosmic Nova in the sixth round.

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